Author: Simon Harold Walker, University of Strathclyde
Panel: War impacts on health
Key words: Suicide, Soldiers, War, Agency, Health
According to Thomas and Gunnell (2010) British suicide rates fell noticeably during the First and Second World Wars. Their research considered gender, class, age and method of self-extinction as they concluded on the rise and fall of suicide over the course of the 20th century. However, like many other considerations of suicide in this period, their work has overlooked how the chaos of total war could potentially mask the intentional deaths of servicemen in and outside of military service. Bourke (1999) argues that suicide was a rare but important final option for some soldiers during the First World War. This was certainly the case for Private Purvis who committed suicide in the trenches in 1916 because he was desperate to get home. This was also true for Harry Green in 1917 who’s wounding out of the army cost him his purpose and ultimately his life, as he decapitated himself with a train because he could not reenlist. These stories also occur in the Second World War. Private Webb recalled a fellow soldier, Private Barker, who took his own life because of bullying from the training officers in 1940. Webb described Barker as struggling to meet the ideal of the soldier as he was a ‘placid, kindly gentle sort of chap… short, rather tubby, quiet little fellow’. Lieutenant Scott also knew a man who took his own life as he explained how a General had committed suicide in the latrines after being captured by the enemy in 1940, ‘in disgrace I suppose’. These are but a handful of numerous cases of self-extinction during the time of war that have been omitted from investigations of the British Army in the early 20th century and is this focus of these paper to explore these and other accounts of the British soldiers who choose to end their own lives during these conflicts.
This paper will consider the implications and occurrences of suicide in both world wars as it attempts to understand how the taking of one’s own life could encapsulate an attempt to retain diminished agency, an opportunity for escape from fear or pain, the result of mental health traumas or a response to events outside of the war. Using bottom up accounts combined with official statistics and overarching top down considerations of legislation and practice, this paper will therefore consider the suicidal soldier as more than anomalous statistic but an individual whose choice to kill himself has removed him from historical perceptions of the First and Second World War.